Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall- the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
In the course of one year, new spring to dying winter, Charlotte’s Web explores the feelings that come with facing our own mortality. I’ve been reading it aloud to my daughter for the last week or so, and am struck by its simplicity- both the clarity of E.B. White’s writing and the idyllic farm life he portrays.
It’s hard not to get lulled into the nostalgic dream of pulling up the stakes and starting over on some wild frontier. Fern, an eight-year old girl, is given free rein to roam the countryside, as long as she returns home for meals and sleep. There’s not even a hint in these pages that something bad or dangerous might happen to her. Instead, the parents’ biggest concern is that their daughter sits on a milk stool in the corner of the barn and stares at the animals all day. The town psychiatrist explains that in her age group, most of the boys have far less interesting things to say than farm animals, which sounds about right.
But of course we suburbanites can have a golden-age nostalgia for farm life, seen through the lens of an Americana past, having only experienced it through books or their respective film adaptations. As Charlotte says, “People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.” In a world of Snapchat and selfies, it feels easier to hope that your daughter would rather sit in a barn all day, insulated from the Henry Fussys of the world.
Meanwhile Wilbur spends most of the time fretting about his impending slaughter, trusting in his friend Charlotte to save him. As we were reading it I searched my memories for how the story ends. Wilbur can’t die, and yet I’m certain it must end with tragedy, as it clearly foreshadows. And then I remember the unhappy twist at the end.
Remembering that, I found myself eager to finish it. Not to see the look of devastation on my daughter’s face when (spoiler) Charlotte dies, but to watch how she processes it. To see what she makes of the transition from the sad death of Charlotte to the new birth of her children. As someone who thinks about death a little too often, I wanted to know how she’d handle the idea that Charlotte wouldn’t be around forever. Well, of course my daughter was determined to deny it flat out, arguing to me that of course Charlotte will come back by the end of the book, flipping ahead and pointing to the illustrations of Wilbur talking to spiders as proof. Well I would never turn down a chance to talk about mortality to my five-year old, so away we went.
And yet imagine my surprise when it’s Fern’s journey that ends up hitting me so profoundly. Fern has such a good time on the ferris wheel with ol’ Henry Fussy that she turns into a positive brat, whining to her parents for more money to spend with Henry and intentionally missing Wilbur’s big moment. If Charlotte’s death is a useful lesson for children, then Fern’s sudden transition from childhood into adolescence was written for the parent reading along. One one level, the message is the same: seasons change, nothing is forever, so treasure your relationships with others.
We’ve read a few bittersweet books recently. After reading The Giving Tree the other day my daughter said she loved it because it was a “happy and sad one”. That describes everything, it seems.